Facing Death, Choosing Strength

My grandfather has stopped eating, and I feel nothing.

I grew up with my grandparents; I shared the basement of my house with them. I remember sleeping with my grandmother as a toddler, the way I would hold her hand and rub the skin between her fingers as I closed my eyes. I recall sharing some of my writing with my grandfather in elementary school, how he would look up from his newspapers and almanacs and smile whenever I brought him an essay or a book report. Sometimes I would brush right by my grandparents on my way to play, or I would ignore them when I read my books. As a self-centered kid, I took them for granted, even though they cared for me more than my biological parents.

My grandparents always loved my father. Even though they raised my mom, they cherished my dad as their stepson, praising his hard work and his resilience in the face of my mother. As a kid, I did not understand why they favored him so much over all of their other step-children. But now, as I see my grandparents fade before my eyes, I also detect why they adored my dad: because he chose strength in the face of adversity, and he always led with virtue and diligence, no matter how hard his struggles.

Introducing this screenshot of Demi Lovato from her music video "Skyscraper," aka the best song ever.

Introducing this screenshot of Demi Lovato from her music video “Skyscraper,” aka the best song ever.

In a recent interview, Meghan Trainor said she did not have the “strength” to develop an eating disorder. Demi Lovato, the goddess of pop and an inspiration in terms of mental health awareness, knocked Trainor down by tweeting that “strength is when are able to overcome your demons after being sick and tired for so long.” Lovato captures the concept of strength so well: strength does not mean experiencing struggle. Strength means fighting through your struggle, overcoming your struggle, thriving despite your struggle, and living, even when life gets really, really hard.

In high school, I had an eating disorder. Having an eating disorder did not make me strong. I do not want anyone to pity me or to praise me because I experienced an eating disorder. I would rather people notice what I have chosen to do despite my eating disorder and my past struggles – that I work two jobs that involve helping people, that I advocate for mental health awareness, that I spend all of my time studying or listening to my friends or taking care of those around me. My strength stems from my actions, from the decisions I have made and the accomplishments that I have achieved; I make my own strength every day when I fight to learn and research about mental health, when I wake up and know that I will apply 100% of myself to all that I do.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, writes that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” People do not choose cancer or sexual assault or death; they choose compassion, they choose to speak out, and they choose to keep living no matter how hard life gets.

My grandfather has stopped eating, and I will see him next week for Thanksgiving. As I write this, tears prick the backs of my eyes, and my fingers shake across my smooth, black keyboard. But my tears do not give me strength. After I post this, I will make plans to visit my family, I will read and learn about race in American history, and I will go for a jog. My feet will pound the pavement, and I will breathe in the cool, crisp November air. No one will help me stretch after the first mile; no one will reward me for my grandparents’ inevitable deaths. I will make my grandparents proud with my choices. I will make my own strength.

My poster board for my summer project based on memoirs and eating disorders. What I worked on earlier this semester, huzzah.

My poster board for my summer project based on memoirs and eating disorders. What I worked on earlier this semester with a good friend, huzzah.

First blog post in over a month, sorry about that guys – this semester has been hectic. How have you dealt with the deterioration of family or friends, or tough stuff in life in general? What have you been reading or occupying your time with this November? If you want, you can check out my reviews of Pointe by Brandy Colbert, The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay here, here, and here respectively. I hope you all have a productive week!

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18 Comments

Filed under Personal

18 responses to “Facing Death, Choosing Strength

  1. Dear Thomas,
    these are always tough times. I hope you continue to draw on your strength and that of family and friends. Take care of yourself. Much love.

  2. Alida Hogan

    Dear Thomas,

    I have watched you for a long time now. You spoke to me when I had no one to turn to. I am that grandmother that you helped when my grandson was being mentally abused by his alcoholic mother. I have watched you grow and your writings and growth as a man have been truly inspirational.

    Your grandparents love you and are most definitely proud of you. I am sure you will have strength and know they will always be with you. They love you. Stay true to the person you have always been. Keep writing. And know that you have helped and inspired many, even a grandmother from Cape Cod!

    God Bless You,
    A. Hogan

    • Oh Alida, you have no idea how happy it makes me to read your comment and know that we still have a connection after all these years. I really hope that you and your grandson are doing well; your use of the word “was” makes me believe that at least the abuse has been tempered. Thank you so much for your support, and I hope you had a fulfilling Thanksgiving.

  3. Thomas, this post is so beautiful and honest and raw and meaningful, and so, so you. Thank you for sharing with us such an important fragment of your life, and I hope you will continue finding strength wherever love and truth are present.

    -Grace 🙂

  4. peter

    Beautifully said, Thomas. Might I suggest, though, that when you write ‘No-me will help me stretch… No-one will reward me…’ you might be forgetting those grandparents of yours who will always be there to help and reward you even though you live to a hundred.

    Peter

  5. Love the line: “People do not choose cancer or sexual assault or death; they choose compassion, they choose to speak out, and they choose to keep living no matter how hard life gets.”
    Glad to see a new post from you!

    Loewe

    • Thanks, Loewe! I read through your blog and wanted to comment on a few of your newer designs and images, but I could not find the button that would let me do so; I hope you know that they look fabulous.

  6. It’s extremely hard to watch people get worse and knowing what’s coming, but in some ways I suppose it’s better than an extremely sudden death in which there’s no warning and no closure. There was a terrible murder-suicide in a family I knew at home, and I had SUCH a hard time with it being at school. I let myself grieve for a few days, and then I also had to choose strength.

    • I agree that an unexpected death or a life cut short act as tragedies beyond tragedies. I am glad you chose strength in your scenario, and thanks for the comment.

  7. James

    Thomas, thank you for your writing and the sacrifices you make to help other people. I pray that you have someone present in your life that helps you. It is far to easy to lose ourselves in the quest to ease the lives of others and in doing so to lose ourselves altogether. Please make time to maintain your own mental, physical and spiritual health so that you can continue to help those who need you.
    In re: How have you dealt with the deterioration of family…
    My sister and I have not spoken in 20 years, it isn’t easy, but I reach out from time to time and leave myself open to communication from her the rest of the time. I’ve burnt so many bridges over the years that it always amazes me when I find a river I can still cross. Now I try to maintain the relationships I currently have and work on building new ones.
    I also just finished reading “Stick” by Andrew Smith, after seeing it on your to read list. It is a very good read and a dynamic exploration of the abuse that happens in families and the extent we go to to hide it. Thank you again for your recommendations and your sharing.

    • James, I agree that we sometimes lose ourselves in the quest to help others and end up burying ourselves. Thank you for bringing that concept to my attention, because even though I still need to work on it, I feel that I am getting better every day. I also appreciate how you share your thoughts on the silence between you and your sister and how you now work to maintain the relationships you have as well as building new ones. Hearing from someone with wisdom and a calm touch means a lot to me.

      I really need to get my hands on “Stick”; for some reason, none of the bookstores or libraries around me have a copy. Perhaps I might cave in and buy it on Amazon soon. Thank you again for your thoughtful comment.

  8. Kev

    I hope you are okay Thomas. I lost my gran last year. I spent the whole year before it happened watching her deteriorate. This once feisty woman became frail, and hardly knew who we were most of the time. It was heartbreaking. My thoughts are with you. Hugs.

    • Kev, I am so sorry to hear about your loss, and thank you for your empathy. For some reason I do not see any posts when I visit your blog, but whatever mode of life you find yourself in right now, I hope that you are doing well and taking care of yourself.

  9. It’ll alway be an uphill climb. It’s easy to say that I’ve always admired your resilience but I don’t understand what it’s been like for you. I never will understand that but I mean what I say.

    The outward conflicts are challenging sure, school work, family problems, career prospects and so on, they are reflected within ourselves adding to our preexisting self doubts and I’m just tired, Thomas, so freaking tired.
    My grandad died last year and that’s okay. I can’t speak for him but I think he had a good life and we did what we could to make him happy during his last years. I’ve come to terms with this inevitability, but I don’t have to be happy with it.

    You who are strong and getting stronger, I hope it gets better. I hope your grandparents are doing well and your mother also. I think it’s the struggles that we overcome, to see how far we’ve traversed, it is immensely rewarding, it’s a part of our lives that bore the fruit of our efforts and we must celebrate that. Here’s a quote from Desiderata, I can’t remember if I told you about this poem before, but it’s vitality inspires:

    “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
    you have a right to be here.
    And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

    Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
    and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
    With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

    © Max Ehrmann 1927

    All the best, Thomas.

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